Corsica: Eppure si muove!

Catalina Maroselli-Matteoli

Research Associate at the University Institute of European Studies in Barcelona

The year 2003 was plagued with political and judicial events which further heightened—a tall order, indeed— the recurrent antagonisms between a wounded but no less activist republic and one of the oldest historical communities in the Mediterranean basin, which in the long term runs the risk of entering into a state of cultural crisis. The local electorate was required to declare its opinion on a referendum text dealing with a reduction in bureaucratic structures which, although hastily prepared, was undoubtedly opportune. However, two incidents a few days apart deserve highlighting.

The sensational detention of Yvan Colonna on the eve of the referendum came as a crowning triumph for the interior minister, however much it was to have a negative influence on the outcome of the vote. In a similar vein, and with no time allowed for reflection, came the announcement of the grim verdict against the presumed murderers of the prefect Érignac. True to form and incapable of a generous or tolerant gesture, the French Republic once more let slip an opportunity to salvage its honour on the Corsican question. The local inhabitants, astonished but distrustful and fearing repercussions, remained silent, keeping their heads low as they are accustomed to do in times of tension.

Some days later, as the situation began to return to normal, human and cultural conflicts, forgotten amid the media propaganda, came to the fore again as a result of a great wave of attacks.Without wanting to enter into value judgments, the perceived backdrop to the violence as a whole is the anguish of an authoritarian Republic that has waited too long to reform and which has itself fallen victim to its own relentless games of smoke and mirrors. In reality, the island powers are pointing a finger at continental France while reflecting back the negative image of a model in crisis, no matter how firmly this is denied: institutional programmes that are backward and incapable of seducing Europe, and an economic model and overbearing and redundant cultural stereotypes that have continued to hold sway against all the odds since the nineteenth century.

The referendum on the island was the fruit of a progressive initiative imposed by the European Union—an initial step in the direction of ‘institutional modernisation’—on Corsica due to its notorious ‘over-administration’ relative to other regions. The urgency of reform was also justified in terms of the project to create a Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010 and the need to implement EU regional policy measures. Along the same lines, and without further niceties, the state affirmed its intent to promote the development of dynamic centres of power as an indispensable prerequisite to multi-level government. All this was cause for rejoicing, the more so since a progressive reduction in bureaucratic structures would usher in a new era on the island, the first stage of which was to consist of the renunciation of the alienating benefits of welfare statism, policies on care that determine the public economy.

Defined in more detail, the European project at a regional level envisages the substitution of the existing model with different ones, abandoning the tradition of an over-constricted and passive citizenry and economic programmes carved in stone, and eliminating certain local, informal and ineffective political practices. The purpose of this decentralisation is to enter fully into the age of empowerment, the reawakening of the entrepreneurial spirit and individual initiative.

The real objective of the referendum, which local representatives were able neither to explain clearly nor to debate, was to transform individuals into the focus of their social group and the territory they occupy and so enable them to shrug off their role as passive witness of unilateral decisions handed down from the state, all this with a view to laying the foundations of authentic democracy, both participative and proximate. Corsican society, disgracefully uninformed and faced with a choice between the status quo and empowerment, lacked the instruments required to select a suitable course of action and so co-operate actively in the implementation of the structural changes which were to condition its future. In their heart of hearts, people are, however, conscious of the need for action. Where past attitudes were characterised by coolness, if not downright obstructiveness, it should be recognised that they have for now shifted away from historic collective behaviour based on dispute, defensive demands or simple adaptation to new requirements.

Today there are reasons to doubt their capacity, as there are also reasons to doubt their determination to assume fully the prerogatives of a people, to free themselves from paternalistic structures and support a collective project whose foundations are clearly to be understood in terms of sovereignty and autonomy. It is for this reason that the failure of the referendum constitutes for Corsicans a decisive confrontation with contradictions that will have to be overcome if they wish to survive. The rot goes much deeper than is apparent, and it will be difficult to deal with all the sensitive issues at once because they are not at all clear. Whatever the extent of their willingness, many of the island’s inhabitants have doubts and, as usual, suffer from mixed emotions, finding themselves caught between what is necessary and fears for their existence as a distinct entity.At the present time, the community, which is in decline and entirely dependent, is allowing its defects to sprout, despite the constant references to the myth of the Corsican nation or the sensationalist media coverage of the island’s problems.

The Historical Context

The present situation is influenced by and has deep roots in the economic, political and cultural fabric of the preceding centuries, which we should recall briefly. Although the island was annexed in 1769, several decades passed before France initiated its brutal military conquest of the new territory. Its ‘scorched earth policy’ was accompanied by the definitive suppression of existing economic and cultural institutions as well as centres of knowledge such as Corsica’s university, which remained closed for more than two centuries, a period known as “the imposition of order”. Likewise, through the diversion of investments to North African countries in the 19th century, the motherland deprived this small island of the infrastructure and financial means vital for evolution and expansion in the industrial age. Moreover, from 1875 the Third Republic initiated an intensive policy of cultural assimilation, prohibiting history education and the oral use of the vernacular, and appointing continental Frenchmen to army and civil service positions.

The terrible misery on the island, denounced by the local press, provided the standard bearers of the welfare state with their strongest arguments and most faithful servants. By necessity officials and managers in service of the nation, by obligation soldiers or brawlers, the Corsicans fell into the snares of the colonial prism. For more than two centuries they obeyed cultural rules that were not theirs, developing a second nature which today heavily influences collective behaviour, making them unwilling, unambitious, half-hearted workers. The balance of these cultural mutations is all the more painful because the changes are contrary to the population’s interests and deep-seated feelings, breaking the invisible bonds that united them with other peoples of the Mediterranean basin.

Unlike its Sardinian neighbours, the indigenous community totally lacks an endogenous economic basis, this being just one more explanation of the loss over the years not only of collective vigour but also of the fundamental characteristics of the Mediterranean character: creativity, individual initiative, ancestral savoir-faire and ancient agro-pastoral and craft traditions. These cultural mutations, already fully consolidated, explain certain failings in people’s thinking. Once abroad, however, Corsicans are not slow in freeing themselves from temporary handicaps for which they bear no responsibility, and in contexts amenable to the free expression of their nature emigrants have demonstrated their talent in the economic sphere. The current state of affairs on the island is attributed to the longstanding injustice, aggravated by the high price paid in human lives to France during the two world wars. The complexity of the Corsican question serves to define the responsibilities of all; we will now highlight the profound imbalances existing in local society.

Demographic Imbalances

Although population numbers have always been small relative to those of other Mediterranean islands, at the end of the 19th century there were around 300,000 inhabitants, 290,000 of whom were indigenous. Immigrants came, for the most part, from northern Italy and Sardinia and operated on the same cultural wavelength as the indigenes.At present the island has, at most, 110,000 indigenous inhabitants in a total population of 260,000. In what is an occurrence without precedent in Corsica’s history, the local population has in barely a hundred years become a minority on its own island.

The new immigrants come principally from continental France, and in particular from the surroundings of the department of Île de France, or from North Africa. This unusual demographic picture has some extremely grave consequences in terms of the maintenance of identity and explains the crisis suffered in inhabitants’ way of thinking. Sardinia, by comparison, has undergone neither the same political or cultural oppression at the hands of the Italian state and has maintained population levels and a consistent homogeneity since the beginning of the 20th century. What’s more, the island’s indigenous population has aged; the birth rate is maintained thanks to Maghrebi immigration, and population growth depends, more than ever, on migratory exchanges with the outside.

Economic Dependency

Characterised by a GDP which is among the lowest in Europe, the economic balance of the last two centuries is worse than depressing. Private activity revolves around the tertiary sector and is often related to tourism and service sector activities, whose importance has increased in areas such as the hotel and restaurant trade, road transport, and large-scale food and agriculture business. However, officialdom continues to form the backbone of the Corsican economy, and 40% of jobs are in the public sector, dominated by the mechanisms of the state. Traceable back to the beginning of the 20th century, these types of activity match social identities that were forged in the same period.

The trade unions, collectives that have played a role in the emergence of the current situation, condition the world of labour, causing Corsican delegations to echo demands that are opposed to the interests of their own community. Apart from these dominant structures, civil society remains largely unorganised. Moreover, protest action by other related sectors is almost non-existent. The private sector—formed by craft workshops, traders and agricultural operations—depends excessively on the public sector and is victim to the selfsame afflictions. Interminable social conflicts, both in the transport sector and, more specifically, in certain key areas of government, jeopardise the survival of small production units.

The island’s development is another question that has not received the attention it deserves, resulting in new problems of dependency. Tourism in the hands of territorial agents leads to the fixing of objectives that are incompatible with the island’s sustainable development or endogenous potential.

The Inadequacies of the Corsican Political Class

Over the long term the socio-economic context has given rise to what is obviously anachronistic collective political behaviour. Without (except in certain cases) calling into question the goodwill of politicians or the positions adopted, it is clear that the local political class is accumulating, in effect, a double liability. Some archaisms are attributable as much to the distortions that arise from a clan culture as to the conservatism of nation-state culture. Following the guidelines of the republican model, and moving away from it only when essential, the principal disadvantage of the context lies in its exclusively monocultural character.

As is also the case in continental France, it feeds mainly on the civil service and has developed little of a business culture, for which reason there is also limited awareness of the preoccupations of ordinary citizens and the necessities of a modern economy. Local political representatives followed contemporary customs throughout the 20th century, their notably inefficient performance leading them to seek security in the dynamics of the ‘lesser evil’. Always halfway between the people and the state—able neither to contain what rose from below nor to deflect what descended from above—what is certain is that for many years they have been nothing more than a distant abstraction. The main reproach currently directed at a political class that has always been judged on the basis of its fidelity to the Republican creed and never in terms of effective management is none other than that of having marched to the torpid yet convenient beat of the past.

All manner of problems come to light on a daily basis, and the bigger the undertaking, the bigger the problem. This was, for example, the case of the “Matignon Process”, in which curiously it was the state that took all the initiative, and more recently of the referendum campaign, which focussed on the relationship between Corsica and France and on the unity of the Republic instead of accentuating the need to Europeanise the region. Excessively dominated by an ideological discourse— which is anti-liberal in the eyes of many—the local authorities have not asserted themselves as full players in the processes of government. Cognisant of events, they continue to rely on hierarchical, untransferred powers. In spite of the formal existence of a ‘European commission’—formed by committed pro-Europeans—within the collectivité territoriale of Corsica, nobody has insisted on the need to promote different spheres of competence, of setting themselves up as fully mature partners of the EU at a point in time at which regional development has become a European affair.

Meanwhile, the nationalist movements, which are in decline and affected by confrontation between their leaders and by a lack of clear perspectives, have ceased to be a source of enthusiasm, despite the certain success of some demonstrations. For all the evidence of progress in the pro-Corsican conscience, there is no movement emerging that can be relied on satisfactorily to channel popular sentiment and give it a modern political voice.

The Problem of Cultural Values

Caught up in perpetuating a firmly consolidated colonial perspective, Corsican society currently faces a crucial issue—the perception or the affirmation of its collective system of symbols or of its system of identification— though there has never been the slightest hint of debate on this fundamental aspect of the problem. Meanwhile, the Corsicans witness impotently the collapse of their traditional mentality without any analysis being undertaken of the causes. What is the Gordian knot of the current debate? The dramatic loss of cultural values, or the confusion of indigenous and Republican values?

The nation-state is based on lay values opposed to those of the small Mediterranean peoples. This laicism, imposed by the national state at the beginning of the 20th century with the separation of church and state, projects a homogenised notion of the world and of mankind, and weakens the relationship with the sacred and that concrete feeling of death that characterise communities in the Mediterranean basin. For at least 50 years, the Corsicans—driven by the rejection and scorn of everything that is prized in their ancestral code of values born of Mediterranean civilisation—have survived by facing up to this secularisation by contradicting a symbolism that generated a collective sense of belonging to a community: a way of feeling and of thinking, deeply-rooted behaviour and, above all, an exceptional relationship with the ‘cosmos’ which had provided them with history.

Without completely adopting the profile of the ‘perfect’ French citizen, many have unquestioningly embraced this model as their example, ceasing to recognise themselves in the characteristic, codified, collective attitudes of their people and, in a more global sense, in an authentic relationship with existence. If we consider that values are transmitted from an educational system whose perspective is the socialisation of the individual, it is possible to understand why many Corsicans have lost their distinctive character. Although the dominant culture has not assimilated or ‘formatted’ them totally, the present-day Corsican population does not display—except residually—traditional Mediterranean characteristics.

Although the authentic awareness of a hierarchy of specific values is more than a minority trait, the tendency to polarisation of the identity is somewhat more widespread, and it struggles between the attraction exerted by the values of the Republic, the only constant and universally recognised references, and, lower down the ladder, a natural sense of belonging. The divisions and contradictions between profound temperament and a more superficial civic culture came to light with the detention of the people who supposedly assisted Yvan Colonna. In that case, the ancestral rules of community solidarity came into conflict with public law. For the Corsicans, as for the Jews, assistance constitutes a duty of conscience, and compliance with that precept can weigh more heavily than any other value judgement.

Bereft of a cultural model, Corsican youth as a whole is subject to feelings of confusion or communal indifference, the more so since in the family and at school there is no longer any mention of all that was once considered essential and which would pervade for ever the thinking of a person: belonging to a land, to a people or to a place, to a community or, in a more general sense, to an idea of humanity. It is evident that it was not the purpose of the Republican school to engender in the individual an affection for his roots. In the long run, the changes will spread insidiously. In spite of the presence of the elderly in the family unit, nothing is being done to maintain a connecting thread and a spiritual tie with previous generations. In these conditions, it is difficult to perpetuate the structuring effects of memory, to pass on the codes and to inculcate in the very youngest the basic wisdom: an interest and a liking for one’s historical legacy as a point of reference for the future. To this tragic situation of cultural defencelessness must be added an absence of social cohesion.

Lack of a Politics of Integration Among the Indigenous Population

In general, to speak of integration is to speak of the acceptance of a way of life, of respect for a collective system of representation, of talking in the language of the people and of referring to a common history. In the case of Corsica, however, scarcely any worth is assigned to indigenous culture, except when the conversation turns to hospitality, which in this case functions to the culture’s own detriment. In accordance with island customs, hospitality is subject to strict rules that do not require guests to abandon their own cultural prerogatives but instead ensure that they are respected. The first group of immigrants is composed of civil servants, sheltered from political dependency thanks to their comfortable salaries.

This privileged state allows them to enjoy the climatic and ecological advantages offered by the island, while not obliging them to imbibe of indigenous culture, about which they talk with a disdainful irony. The second group comprises the Maghrebi immigrants, who defend the political status quo even though they do not identify with the values of the Republic. Little disposed to integrate into mainstream society, they do not hesitate to profit from the social blessings, labour legislation and other benefits of the welfare state. Their dependency on the clan or on the state is less than in the case of the Corsicans. Economically active, they have managed to maintain certain commercial traditions and have a thoroughly Mediterranean spirit of enterprise.

Similarly, the indigenous population has lost, along with the supports that underpin its sense of identity— notions of territory, culture, language and history—its integrative capacity. A society with very marked characteristics, it is in deep conflict with its very essence: the family and the role it plays (perfectly assimilated by Mediterranean tradition) against mechanisms of solidarity, or networks imposed by a chief. In this way indigenous culture has lost basic principles. It is possible to imagine breathing fresh air into the situation by urgently implementing an integration policy based on the defence of values, active support for compulsory language and history education and effective promotion of the cultural heritage.

If some kind of rapid intervention does not occur, then Corsican society runs the risk of sinking once and for all into a state of total detachment from Corsican culture, an irreversible situation that could come about in a short space of time. At the present time the implantation of a population indifferent to its own cultural points of reference and to its behaviour cannot but result in self-damage. During the last century, however, immigration from Italy and from the Iberian peninsula, while introducing people who were quite the opposite of the Corsicans, constituted an enriching factor, reinforcing a dynamic of mixture, of interchange and the interpenetration of ideas, skills and languages. There has a been a lamentable impoverishment since then as cultural relations are limited and have come to be dominated by uniformity and conditioned by monolingualism.

Some Innovative Measures

In spite of it forming part of a state, it is essential to emphasise the transformations that the island has undergone over the past thirty years. These can be attributed to certain factors, such as, for example, to the worthiness and the laudable decision of certain Corsicans to work with a view to collective renewal. We are, nevertheless, also living in times propitious to the stimulation of cultural difference. In this respect the most important influence has been that of certain international factors: the manifest weakening of the economic and cultural foundations of the nation-state, the appearance of the information society, which broke down the borders of the nationstate, economic globalisation and, finally, the construction of Europe.

In a brief period of historical time, and despite the cultural erosion, Corsica has changed profoundly, and in many ways for the better. However, the biggest challenge is still to come: recovery from lethargy caused by centuries of neglect and by Corsicans’ lack of ability to determine their own course. From an individual perspective, many have devised profiles and cultural frameworks that are authentic but that do not lapse into folklore. In practice, all this serves as an stimulus for private initiative and facilitates the restoration of a certain interest in Corsica’s cultural heritage. These fundamental transformations, which have still not impregnated the political mindset, are reflected in new ideas and, in particular, the notion that Corsicans have a legitimate right to live and to work on their land. The young demand the means to be able to implement this demand and refuse to go into economic exile, and with good reason, as the country’s quality of life is extraordinary and it is within a few hours of the great centres of European decision-making.

The influence of the young university—memory’s crucible—is, without doubt, of great importance. This centre of knowledge reopened its doors in 1977, the fruit of demands first raised in 1920 and after a good many violent demonstrations. By way of a comparison: by that same date, Sardinia already had three universities. The value of the university is manifested in its development of new educational directions and a good number of disciplines related to the concept of identity, in the teaching of specific scientific disciplines in areas of prime importance (such as the environment and sustainable development), and simultaneously in the increase in its programme of ethnological, historical, linguistic and cultural research.This enables interested young people to rediscover the cultural diversity of the Mediterranean basin and a taste for multilingualism and multiculturalism.

Even more satisfactory are personal initiatives that could, in economic terms, modify the situation in the long run. While the economic model is currently hegemonic, some private firms have already set themselves up as examples or counter-paradigms. These include transport businesses and production units, particularly in the crafts, agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, stockbreeding and other sectors. The value of a group of people acts as a vehicle for a laudable spirit of enterprise in a difficult situation, plagued by social problems harmful to small bodies, and with social and fiscal pressures that, in terms of the relationship with Paris, are totally ‘normalised’, and therefore unjust for a country lacking in development opportunities.

The current period is a time of hope and, it should be understood, of evolution. In the not so distant future, changes on a global scale will be even more beneficial for the indigenous community. The application of EU regional policy, although not far-reaching, will favour a genuine cultural blossoming, something that has already been perceptible in the air for the past two years. Regional development programmes and funds have led to logistical support and all that is lacking is the conviction of the relevance of the idea. As can be observed throughout its cultural history, the Corsican people has at its disposal the tools required to confront the unconscious fears that eat away at men in the third millennium and that have emerged as a result of the loss of points of reference, of a lack of ideological moorings and of a limited metaphysical relationship with existence.

Identity: a Stratagem for Embracing the World

The indigenous community, in spite of its numerical weakness, still retains to some degree a number of exceptional cultural advantages that require urgent recognition. From the outset, the image comes to mind of the incomparable beauty of the landscapes, although the true motor of internal development is in the character and the soul. In effect, the Corsicans possess an extremely rare flower, the fruit of antiquity and of the originality of their culture, that acquired noble status in the mother-lode of Euro-Mediterranean civilisation.

This is why it is essential to see the peculiarities of this people as the authentic force and the core that will structure its future.That said, in order to achieve this it is essential to end the tendency to ignorance. It is necessary to convince people so that true collective will and political determination will arise. Violence does not have a structural character. In order to approach the question in an appropriate way, we must reorganise the community so that essential lines of action are respected. In order to extricate ourselves from a situation like this and give back to the indigenous culture the credit it deserves and thereby restore to it coherent and constructive social bases that are limited by a series of assumptions it will be necessary to:

  • Put an end to the artificial hierarchy between cultures and to the penalisation imposed by the ‘spirit of the Enlightenment’. Unjustly, this situation gives rise to a disparity between popular and universal cultures which only benefits the latter, because it is considered the only one worthy of respect and admiration.
  • Value Corsican cultural identity as a creative force so that it may carry weight in contemporary thought. Far from having sunk itself in the ‘mists’ of the previous civilisation, it has been born of an ancient process of sedimentation that lies at the genesis of ‘Mediterranean thought’, from which it has taken certain original characteristics.

It is about an identity that in essence is plural and diversified, neither fixed nor monolithic, simultaneously an integral part and a singular reflection of other Mediterranean identities, in contact before many others with the great civilising currents and the religious pluralism that moulded men and landscapes to form an arena of communication. Children of a land of conquest, confronted from the beginning by other merchants and invaders, Corsicans have had no alternative but to learn respect for their fellow man, tolerance and hospitality as a form of defence.

True heirs of a culture of emancipation, they hope in return that the same principles will be applied to them. With this objective, it is essential to promulgate laws that include Corsicans’ way of thinking and the respect that they profess towards life. It is essential to write up with urgency a corpus of texts to protect the cultural sphere and to reinforce identity, making reference to a ‘non-standard’ definition of democracy. The times in which the good of the strong balanced the evil of the weak, in which the worthy, the legitimists, faced the children of division, wrongdoers because they did not give way to the other, have passed. Reality is much more complex. The Mediterranean people’s idea of justice, recognised as a universal value, does not stop at the frontiers of Cartesianism, nor does it draw its normative virtues from a single model. The spirit of openness and tolerance of the peoples of the Mediterranean is a fact.

Their creative force drinks of the historical and cultural diversity that they represent. The legitimate will of Corsica is to recover its own physiognomy, that of a Mediterranean island, on condition that characteristics of its identity are not lost as a result of the development of tourism. And only if they are reconciled with their authentic nature and their rich and diverse primary identity will the Corsicans regain confidence in themselves. In the same way, if they permit the expression of their cultural history, they will be able to reconstruct a balanced relationship with the world with a view to raising a collective destiny worthy of the name.

A privileged space, Corsica continues to be one of the few lands whose modernity and fascination comes from millennia of existence. It is a land of spirituality, tolerance and welcome, and so it must remain. Moulded by the forces of nature, it carries imprinted in its reddish stone and copper-coloured rocks sediments of social cohesion: a sense of life, a love for mankind and all respect due. Thanks to felicitous reunions with the elemental force, the Corsican people’s cultural survival passes along the luminous paths of identity, which return the echo of the soothing songs of the Hellenic shepherds of old or the sounds of Amphion’s lyre.